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When you think of philosophy you probably think of ancient Greeks in Toga's discussing some frivolous topic, but this only one aspect of it. Philosophy has in one form or another been going on since man left the cave. In this article we are going to cover Philosophy 101 to get you up to speed on what philosophy is, the different areas it covers and some of the terminology used.
Philosophy is really thinking about how one should live, the things that exist, and the use of logic to resolve differences.
The Greeks you are thinking about like Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius etc are part of Western Philosophy, Buddha, Confucius etc are Eastern Philosophy. So what’s the difference? Mostly an arbitrary line down the globe. The philosophies of China and India are at least different to each other as they are from Greek or Roman, but that’s just the way it is.
As you’d expect this relates to the Western hemisphere, that part starting in Ancient Greece & Rome, through Europe and over the Americas. It has influenced and is influenced by Western religion, math, politics and science and you might find a preference towards the rights of the individual, rather than the social responsibility.
Conversely Eastern philosophy relates to areas of Asia being predominately China, India, Japan and Korea. In general, and fairly broadly sweeping terms Eastern philosophy has a view of the cosmic whole, and the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and is more focused on the collective rather than the individual.
Regardless of the geographical origin, philosophy covers various topics, or branches. Some philosophers focus on one or two, and some cover the complete gamut. The major branches are;
Metaphysics can best be described as the philosophy of reality. Things like what does it mean to exist? In both western and eastern philosophy it is concerned with the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute, potentiality and actuality.
“cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) – Rene Descartes
What does it mean to know something? How do we know that we know? These are the types of questions Epistemology considers. Epistemology then is concerned with the theory of knowledge, of justification and rationality of belief.
"Thinking is another attribute of the soul; and here I discover what properly belongs to myself. This alone is inseparable from me. I am—I exist: this is certain" – Rene Descartes
What is good and evil? What is right and wrong? Ethics considers human morality, justice and virtue. The word itself is derived from ethos meaning “character, moral nature”, and the ancient Greek of ethikos: “relating to one’s character”
“Bad people...are in conflict with themselves; they desire one thing and will another, like the incontinent who choose harmful pleasures instead of what they themselves believe to be good.” - Aristotle
The Philosophy of Aesthetics is concerned with the nature of beauty, taste and art. It is about what happens in our minds when we view art, listen to music, or explore nature and asks questions like; what is art? What makes good art?
“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” - Aristotle
This branch of philosophy looks to distinguish good reasoning from bad reasoning it is the study of reasoning, valid inference and demonstration. It does through examination of and classification of statements and arguments and asks questions such as “what distinguishes a good argument from a bad one? And How can we detect a fallacy in reasoning?
“All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal.” - Aristotle
As the name suggests this branch is all about government, politics, the state, liberty, justice and authority. “What is government? Why is it needed? What makes it legitimate, and what rights and freedoms should they protect?” Plato’s The Republic is one of the most important works on the subject and something everyone should read. Machiavelli’s The Prince is another well known work that still resonates today.
“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.” – Niccolo Machiavelli
Major Movements and Schools
In philosophy there are major “schools” (or academies). Back in days of Togas there were actual schools with students walking corridors and everything. These days it’s “schools of thought”. There are many, but the ones you will have heard of would include;
Philosophy is a huge concept that touches every topic and has been around since man has had a conscious self. There are many fundamental doctrines, and the Ancient Greeks contributed greatly and are arguably what most people think of as philosophy itself. In this intro to philosophy we have focused on getting you a working knowledge of the topic itself and its component parts. It can be a fascinating and quite a head scratching area of study. Drop what you’ve learned though this philosophy 101 article in the comments below.